Iowa workshop marks 75 years of writing
By Ryan J. Foley
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Inside the 154-year-old Victorian home that houses the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, you won’t see many Amazon Kindles. Twitter is viewed as a potentially disastrous distraction. And you can even anger an instructor for mentioning Google in your writing.
At a time when so much has changed in the publishing industry, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious creative writing program embraces tradition. And why not? For more than seven decades, the nation’s best young fiction writers and poets have escaped from life to spend two years in Iowa City writing, reading, hearing criticism of their work and meeting lifelong trusted readers. And that formula continues to have success helping top-notch writers develop their craft.
The program, which has helped train everyone from Flannery O’Connor to Michael Cunningham and T.C. Boyle, remains a powerhouse in American literature as it turns 75. To mark the milestone, hundreds of alumni are coming back to campus in what amounts to an all-star gathering of writers who have breathed the air in Iowa City and that of its once-smoky bars.
Even in a town where it is not uncommon to bump into award-winning writers at the grocery store, the reunion is creating tremendous buzz. Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award recipients and MacArthur Foundation “geniuses” will be among the hundreds of workshop alums in attendance.
Boyle, 2010 Pulitzer fiction winner Paul Harding, author Denis Johnson and dozens more participated in panel events addressing topics such as, “what makes literature immortal?” and “the writer as outsider.”
“It will be great to see all these legends of the program,” Arna Hemenway, 23, who just completed his first year in the workshop, says during a break from working on a novel in a library filled with thousands of books written by alums. Hemenway says he feels a bond with those who have gone through before him: “You’re toiling under the same sort of magical, strange, impossible thing.”
Those returning will find a program quite similar to the one they knew. Admission remains extremely competitive: The workshop received 1,600 applications last year for just 25 fiction writing and 25 poetry slots. Students take literature seminars from award-winning authors and poets who comprise the faculty. In workshops, they take turns handing in stories and poems to be intensely critiqued by classmates and instructors.
Students continue writing and discussing the word at all hours of the day in some of the same bookstores, bars and coffee shops that have long populated this college town.
“I would say that in some ways our program hasn’t changed,” says Lan Samantha Chang, the author who has directed the program since 2006. “It’s true that we’ve gone from way back when, when people would stand up and read their stories out loud to an auditorium to share their work, to mimeographs to photocopies, but basically the emphasis on writing remains the same here. The focus on writing, apart from the industry and apart from whatever kinds of media are used to carry away the product of what we do here, remains.”
Chang says her role as director is like “being a caretaker of the program” and making sure its best parts are preserved.
At the same time, the program has changed in many ways. Chang, the first woman and Asian-American to lead the program, shattered its image as an old boy’s club after succeeding the late Frank Conroy. The workshop’s accommodations are much nicer than in the past: The Dey House has been renovated to connect to a library that includes 3,500 books written by alums, and students now meet in conference rooms with splendid views of the woods along the Iowa River.
Chang is praised for raising more money for financial aid so students aren’t competing — as much as in the sometimes cut-throat past — over limited funding.
Eric Simonoff, co-head of the book department at the WME talent agency, applauds the Iowa workshop. His agency represents four of the six Iowa grads The New Yorker listed in last year’s compilation of the best 20 writers under 40.
“I think it still has a very significant contribution to make to American letters,” he says, noting that because of good funding, those accepted into the program receive scholarships to cover their tuition.
Benjamin Nugent, who recently graduated from the program and already has a deal to get his first novel published next year, recalls that he was accepted in 2009 after sending in a manuscript of a comedy about fraternity brothers who accidentally turned their mascot into a demon that sexually assaults them.
“I don’t think that’s what they were writing at Iowa 75 years ago,” says Nugent, who wrote, “American Nerd: The Story of My People,” before he was admitted. “I think it is a different place.”
At the same time, Nugent says he’ll hand-write the first drafts of his stories or even use a typewriter. Like most of his classmates, he does not own an e-reader and prefers paper books. He says he was scolded by a tradition-minded instructor when he turned in his first workshop story for writing about a character that used Google. And although he is as quick-witted as they come, Nugent does not use Twitter.
“Lack of distraction is so important when you are writing a novel that using Twitter seems like putting my head on a guillotine,” he says. Nonetheless, a university spokesman, Winston Barclay, says he expects “a steady stream of blogs and tweets” to come from writers at reunion events.
There is also the distraction of the business side of writing. Agents and editors routinely come to meet with students and get samples of their work. Hemenway says he and other students know they have to engage industry representatives, “but no one likes doing that.”
Simonoff says Iowa’s administration has long been conflicted toward the publishing industry, trying to give students access without taking their focus away from learning their craft.
“And I think that’s right,” he said. “It’s useful to know that at one point one will have to market oneself, but I don’t think the time to do that is when you are in an MFA program.”
Joe Fassler, a 27-year-old recent graduate, says he often writes at an old, dark bar called the Deadwood — a popular haunt during the 1960s workshop days of writer Raymond Carver — to avoid the distraction of a fast Internet connection. In an interview in one of its booths, Fassler says he is inspired to write fiction as an alternative to the constant drumbeat of traditional and social media.
“The reason it’s modern and the reason it’s so radical now is it’s such a slow-burning, heavy-attention medium that really demands someone who is mentally present and not just giving you superficial attention. I really love that aspect of it,” Fassler says. “I want to convince people that, in this world of beeps and tweets, spending meditative time with an analog paper book is a worthy pursuit. I want to write so well that I can convince others of that.”
At this week’s reunion, he plans to set up a room where alumni can record their memories about the program.
“I wonder to what extent things have changed over time, or has it been kind of a timeless experience?” he says. “From the time of Flannery O’Connor to today, how has writing changed? How has publishing changed? How has Iowa City changed? I hope I get some insight into those questions.”